Pythagorus in my sights at last

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Jill Craven hopes to end 35 years of shame this summer by passing her maths GCSE

Thirty-two per cent. There, I've said it. A figure carved on my mind. It's the only mark I remember from my School Certificate, an exam I sat in New Zealand more than 35 years ago when I was 15. I got what I guess are the equivalent of A*s for English, history and geography. The failure was for maths. No one thought it was too much of a problem. After all, I was a girl - and girls need English, don't they?

I became a "can't-do-sums" show-off, although the failure haunted me. But when I turned 50, I felt it was time to do something. So I enrolled as a distance learner for intermediate level GCSE maths, trawling through the internet to find a friendly FE college.

It's been difficult. I look at my books and understand each word, but not the concepts. Quadratic and simultaneous equations? Trigonometry? Nightmares.

My friends with maths qualifications have tried to help. But they see the answers before I can figure out step one - and they're not teachers, so they don't have to know how to break the problems down.

I often visit schools as part of my job and occasionally dip into maths classes. I'm not sure what some of the bemused teachers think; the pupils are more direct. "What are you doing maths for?" they ask. The implication is obvious: "Iat your age."

I tell them that I'm simply embarrassed at being innumerate. That my choices have been limited: I can't teach, for starters. That my hairdresser's real shock at my lack of qualification - "but you're a journalist, aren't you" - was the final spur. She told me how determined she'd been to pass maths because she knew she wanted to run her own business.

I've hung in there, fitting things in when I can. I did some of my coursework in a holiday home in New Zealand and first looked at what the book described as "simple algebra" in the Galapagos.

I've enjoyed much of it; have learnt other parts by rote. I'm still struggling with the silliest things - finding the "nth" term, for instance.

I know it's easy-peasy, but it floors me every time. Sometimes I'm angry.

Why didn't someone see I was struggling all those years ago and help?

I was supposed to sit the exam last year, but my board changed its rules for distance learners so you had to sit at your centre of registration. I wasn't prepared to travel up north twice (my college is based in Consett).

So I've enrolled as a private candidate in London and sit this June.

I'm revising when I can and have found a willing - and inspiring - head of maths who's prepared to provide some last- minute coaching. (That's one of the bonuses of my job: you come across brilliant teachers). We did Pythagoras, trig, bearings and loci in an hour last week. He makes it seem easy.

The exam looms. My heart rate quickens when I think about it. What if I panic? What if I fail? What ifI "You must remember," says my tutor, "that the maths is easy. It's the way they ask the questions that is difficult."

We'll see.

If I pass? I shall have a drink to my late dad, a maths graduate who despaired of his youngest daughter. He will be chuffed.

Jill Craven is deputy editor of 'TES Friday' magazine

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